Intro by David Potorti | Interview and media by Sandra Davidson
Jaki Shelton Green and her poetry are both deeply rooted in the North Carolina experience. As our state’s first African American poet laureate, her words soar while keeping us close to the earth: the touch, the smell and the sound of the everyday are made holy in Green’s writing. In the same way, her receipt of the distinguished North Carolina Award for Literature in 2003 and induction into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2014 are balanced by her work on the ground as a community arts advocate, giving voice to the incarcerated, the homeless, the chronically and mentally ill, and victims of domestic violence. A native of Efland, Green has been active in North Carolina’s literary and teaching community for more than 40 years, penning eight books of poetry, co-editing two poetry anthologies and writing one play. She currently teaches Documentary Poetry at Duke University Center for Documentary Studies, a practice she will incorporate into her work as our state’s newest ambassador for literature and the spoken word. We invited her to talk about how poetry became such an integral part of her life, the debt she owes to her ancestors, and the importance of letting everyone tell their own story.
You’ve said before that your grandmother was instrumental in guiding you to writing. Will you tell me about her and the influence she had on your writing?
My grandmother was Eva Tate. She was a lovely very petite prim and proper little southern Methodist. My grandmother was central to the family. She was the matriarch when I was growing up, but a very quiet-spoken matriarch. She just carried a big stick in her being. She was very humble.
As a child I was very fidgety and very precocious and curious, and by grandmother fed that with stories. She also fed it with little tiny notebooks that she would give me so I would be quiet in church. I would sit in church and scribble and draw pictures. They were my stories. I was writing about what was going on around me. As a teenager I started bringing my own little journals to church, but I would listen and I would capture pieces of what was being said on Sunday mornings into poems.
She was part of my source. She really stimulated me to be creative in many different ways, but writing was one thing that she really pushed me to do. I never really wanted to be a writer. I always wanted to be a scientist or an oceanographer, but it was my grandmother who said, “You must tell the story, and there are many stories that you must tell, and you must help other people tell stories.” My grandmother was a keeper of stories, and she’s passed that down to me. It’s a rich responsibility, but I’ve totally taken it on.
Will you describe what it was like to grow up in Efland?
I grew up in an extended family meaning that my three first cousins were less than a mile away. My grandmother lived next door to us with my mother’s middle sister. My mother’s siblings were all teachers and principals, except for one uncle who owned the store in between his house and our house. It was one of those little – now we call it a convenience store – but it was really a little community store. You could buy fresh bread. You could buy soda pop. You could buy cigarettes. You could buy gas. The community was small in that everyone knew everyone. People were interrelated by family relations or by marriage. It was a very interconnected family, and people were very interdependent on each other in terms of making sure that everyone had what they needed.
My aunt taught [at] the elementary school that I attended for 38 years. She taught all five of us, all five of the grandchildren. So, I grew up in this family of educators and first cousins who were older than me, who were in college when I was still in elementary school, so I was always around adults. My one and only brother is three years younger than me, so he and I had a kind of magical growing up with the other kids in the neighborhood, but I was always reading books. So deep community. This time of the year we’d be picking beans, snapping beans, canning tomatoes, making jellies. All of those southern rituals are dear to me. I was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. My grandmother was a missionary, and a lot of my writing is built on containers I’ve created for those memories. Those memories of bearing witness to women sitting in circle doing what they do as powerful women.
I really appreciated the life I had as a child, but I’m really happy that I grew up in a family that fostered me to fly away; that did not create obstacles for me to stay home. There was a part of me – and this is going to sound horrible – there was a part of me that felt like I belonged somewhere else. That I wanted to be in a bigger space. I would look at the sky and think, “What’s over here? I know there’s something over there, and I want to find what over there is.” I left Efland in my teen years to go to a private Quaker boarding school in Bucks County, PA. I hate to use the word gypsy because it has such negative connotation, but my great uncle used to call me his little gypsy because I always wanted to go. And I still want to go. I still want to know what other people are thinking in other parts of the world, and how they live, and how they play, and how they love and what art looks like for them, and how their art influences my art.
One of the things I’ve heard you speak about is that literacy is very important to your family for a very particular reason. Will you tell that story?
When I was a child especially when there was a summer thunderstorm, my grandmother would tell me the same story over and over. It is the story of my grandmother’s grandmother, [who] was the property of her white father on the plantation that my family lived on. My grandmother’s grandmother was the sole property of her half 3-year-old sister. It was her responsibility to take care of this little girl. To make sure she was cleaned, clothed, fed every day.
Her older half-siblings secretly taught her how to read and write, and it was their secret. But one day the mother of the white children was in a room where my grandmother’s grandmother was also present. The woman was very stern. The woman also did not like my grandmother’s grandmother for very obvious reasons, and her mother always told her to stay out of her way, to be obedient and stay out of her way. On this particular day the mother was teaching a lesson to her children, and she asked the other children a question, and the child had forgotten the answer, and as children do, they start looking at each other, and then they looked at my grandmother’s grandmother because they knew she knew. She was a little older. They just kept staring at her.
So my grandmother’s grandmother blurted the answer. On that day it was discovered that she could read and write. On that day she was literally removed from the house violently. She was physically beaten and sent to live on the edge of the plantation with an old black woman who was too old to be of service anymore. Finally the white wife was willing to have her way. She’d always wanted to sell my grandmother’s grandmother and [she] was sold to a plantation owner a few counties away. The day he came to take this child away, he arrived in an old wooden buck wagon. [Her] mother ran behind the buck wagon screaming and crying as it was going out the driveway. An old rusty nail fell from the wagon, and my grandmother’s grandmother’s mother picked up the nail, and she put it in her apron pocket. She kept the nail.
That nail has been passed down on the matrilineal side of the family. It was passed down because year’s later my grandmother’s grandmother’s mother was able to buy her out of slavery. So this nail has remained. My grandmother gave me this nail perhaps when I was too young to bear the responsibility of the nail. I’ve lost the nail a lot of times, but now I have the nail and it’s very safe, and that nail directs me and instructs me. It’s another container for the work that I write. It reminds me of sacrifice. My grandmother’s story was, “Someone who looked just like you almost died for the right to read and write, so you will write.”
I think that sometimes our life’s work finds us because I didn’t choose writing. I’m happy writing. I love writing. But sometimes I wish I didn’t write. I wish I were an oceanographer and I would have something really to write about, but it’s that story. It’s that story that has instructed my life’s work in a very deep way and with integrity. I’ve never had an ego about writing. I write because I love to write. It’s my yoga. It’s my zen. There’ve been times in my life when it’s the only thing I had to hold on to.
You’ve said before that writing can help people understand who they are and where they’re from. I wonder how it’s helped you understand who you are?
When I left N.C. as a teenager to go to boarding school it was the late 60s. There was the Civil Rights Movement. There was the Cambodia issue. There was Vietnam. There was a lot going on in our world. There was a lot going on for an adolescent rural black girl from the South. I was very confused about my identity and where I belonged in the South. I was plucked out of that, and here I am in Pennsylvania with people from all over the world. I’d never lived away from my parents, my family. I had a roommate. Never had a roommate. And I learned so much about other people, and how I began to see myself over and over again in what I was studying, what I was learning. Other people actually hold up mirrors for you, and I learned that at a very young age, and that’s when my poetry really flourished. I started depending on my journal. I’m very outgoing, but as an adolescent I was very introverted. I was very introspective until I felt like I knew what I needed to say, and if it would be appropriate. I was always trying to be discerning. I didn’t know that word then, but now I understand that I was practicing discernment and, in a way, mindfulness. So, writing continues to show me who I am.
I started keeping a journal when my oldest daughter Imani became ill in 2008. I wrote in that journal every single day up until the day she died which was from late August of 2008 to June 5, 2009. It was a very quick illness. One day last year I was looking for a book in my study and another book fell from the shelf on my foot. When I picked it up I didn’t recognize it. I opened it, and it was that journal. I’d forgotten about it. I read that journal, and I was also reading Imani’s journal because she was journaling her illness. There was almost a conversation going on between the two of us, and inside of that conversation it made me really think about the depths of motherhood but also the limitations of motherhood and the boundaries…because it was the first time in her life that mama couldn’t fix it.
So writing has shown me myself over and over again. It continues to. When I think about identity and writing, I’m always interested [in how] the anatomy of voice changes. The geography of your voice changes. I also see that when I’m working with any number of writers…my college students at Duke in addition to non-traditional writers. We all are writing for our life. I just believe that on some level. Even if people will say, “Well I don’t write from a personal perspective.” I think it’s very difficult to not have a lens that also includes some visceral or emotional or mental or brainy piece of who we are.
And you have talked about Imani’s death and how you went through a period afterwards where you were not able to write? Will you tell that story and how you got to the other side of it?
Certainly. Yes. I wanted to write. I was listening to friends who’d recently lost parents or lost children, and they were writing every day, and they were just writing, writing, writing, and I was paralyzed. I was creatively paralyzed. I told my husband, “I want paint and canvases for Christmas.” And he was like, “Why? You don’t paint.” And I was like, “But I can’t write, and I need to do something with my hands.” My process is not to use the computer when I’m creating. It’s where I go back after the piece is done in my journal or on my cell phone. I use my cell phone a lot as pad and pencil. The computer’s where they live, it’s where I edit, it’s where I deconstruct and reconstruct them. But I couldn’t write, so I painted. And she started showing up in the colors, in the strokes. I could feel my anger. I could feel my pain, my sorrow. You know how when someone dies you get stuck in the last time you saw them? I was stuck in hospice, and my spirit would only let me experience her in the last two weeks of her life, and I was struggling to get beyond that. I was struggling to see her walking into my house grinning. To see her jogging, or to see her rushing in to take a shower after coming in from the gym. I was struggling to see her beauty and her wittiness which was wicked. She was wickedly humorous and funny. So I just let it be. I stopped trying to write. I didn’t push it. And then last year this poem I Want to Undie You just showed up at like 4 o’clock one morning. I was really tired, and I just picked up my telephone and I started composing it in my phone.
I think there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to memorialize her. I want to keep her alive. And these words “I want to undie you” just kept feeding me more and more and more of the pieces of her life. And I had to remind myself to get out of the way of the poem because this is not my poem. I felt like Imani was someone channeling herself through me. And that happens quite a bit for me. I think I channel my grandmother a lot. I think I channel my ancestors a lot.
What do you think poetry as a literary form offers as a mode of expression that is different than narrative writing?
I think a spirit of resilience for most of us. I think the world right now needs poetry more than ever. Once upon the time the United Nations used to have this United Nations Day of Poetry, and I used to always think if they had poets sitting amongst the United Nations people or if they had to open every session with poetry from around the world that it would be a different energy in that space.
But I’ve seen resilience. I’ve seen it in my non-traditional writers: writers who are homeless, children who are struggling, newly literate writers. I think it does give us a spirit of resilience, and I think that my role as Poet Laureate is to be present in many, many different types of communities and to definitely foster an appreciation for voices that are marginalized. Voices that are outside of the canon. Voices that don’t show up at poetry readings. Voices that would never come to a retreat, but they’re there. And North Carolina has rich community, rich diversity of community, and there are amazing stories that I want to help people excavate and tell and write about and publish and celebrate in their communities.
Poetry builds community.
I think a very good example of that is when you look at the spoken word community. It’s a movement, and when I have been in a debate with some of my more scholarly or academic writer friends and even colleagues in the literary community, I remind them that “When was the last time that we had 300 people come to a poetry reading on a Monday night at a bookstore?” It doesn’t happen. But they do. Even if it’s horrible! I’ve heard really bad. I’ve heard fabulous. But what I have witnessed is a sense of community. The sense of no judgement. The sense of rallying each other on. The sense of creating opportunities for people’s voices. Pulling people to the mic. Standing there with them. Supporting them to share their voice. It’s powerful. Poetry is powerful, and I think we need the energy of poetry right now because I’ve seen how poetry can build bridges. I think poets are architects. We don’t even give ourselves credit for being amazing architects of these bridges where we meet with all of our otherness, and then we’re able to look at our deep connections.
Will you talk about what you intend to do as Poet Laureate? What are some of your hopes?
I’ve already been invited into a very diverse landscape of settings around the state, from rest homes to public schools, arts councils, and even out of North Carolina. I’m going to be performing in South Carolina with a symphony orchestra and a jazz musician. I want to use my vocation as a documentary poet to go into communities and to get people to pull out their memorabilia, to bring the stories that they’re holding. Because I also teach from a perspective of what we keep keeps us. So what do we keep? We keep our grandmother’s bible. We keep photographs. We keep scrapbooks. We keep our father’s and our mother’s medals. I keep my family stories. My mother is 100-years-old, and she was a Rosie the Riveter. She may well be one of the oldest ones still alive. There are stories like this everywhere. I want people to bring their photographs, and I’ll bring my nail, and we will look at them as primary and secondary documents and write and write. All of those objects are holding stories, and I believe that the poetry is embedded inside a story. Poems are inside a story. That’s where all my poems come from.
I believe that we’re all human museums, that we’re carrying around our anthropology inside of us and writing is an archaeological dig. For me it’s like how many pens can I hand out to start doing the digging across the state, and how can I convince people that we are our own curators? That we can tell our stories, that the stories will not be erased. They will not be marginalized. They will not be silenced because we need all the stories of all the people of North Carolina. We need those stories. What are we going to leave as a legacy? I believe that what we’re leaving is what we have to tell.
Will you talk about where this appointment fits into your own personal narrative as a woman of color? We’ve never had an African American Poet Laureate in North Carolina. Can you tell me what that feels like to you?
I’m overwhelmed to be honest in a powerfully beautiful way. It’s very endearing to me. Never on my journey inside of a literary community did I ever aspire to be the Poet Laureate. I just always wanted to be a good writer. I’ve always wanted to build community through literature. I’ve always wanted to interface with as many people as possible, so I kind of feel like a bride, like my groom finally showed up and said, “Okay I know you’ve been waiting for me let’s go to the ball now.”
I know that becoming the Poet Laureate is not just about me. It really isn’t. I know it’s symbolic for many, many people of color across the state. I’ve received emails and messages from people I’ve never met, people of color, who’ve said, “I don’t know you, but when I saw that on TV I screamed. I cried.” Because it does mean something. I think right now it’s a very sad, turbulent social, cultural, political environment for all of us, and it was really nice to have a celebration. It’s really nice to have something joyous. For the moment it feels good. People have said, “Wow I’ve stopped looking at stupid stuff on Facebook. I’m following you now and wanting to know what you’re doing and I’m so happy for you.” And with that joy comes responsibility.
I’ve said this before. I serve the state of North Carolina. I don’t serve only people of color because I’ve always said to myself if I’ve written a poem and only the black people in the room get it, I’ve failed. If I write a poem and only women in the room get it, I’ve failed. If I write a poem and only the black women in the room get it, I’ve failed. If I write a poem and only Southerners in the room get it, I’ve failed. I’ve struggled. It’s been a struggle to find that authenticity in voice, in metaphor, that connects to anybody’s humanness.
I’ll give you an example. When I was in Morocco last year presenting at an international prose poetry symposium an elderly man came to me after my reading. He was a professor. He said, “I have to tell you something. I was sitting with a group of elderly men in the back. They speak no English. But you read your poem about police brutality and they were weeping. They kept asking me to tell them what you was saying, and they were saying we don’t know what her words are, but we feel the poetry of her words. We feel the story. It is touching us very deeply.” They were weeping.
Or when an elderly old-as-the-mountain white man in my community chases me around the grocery store to tell me how much he loves my grandmother poems…I feel like I’ve accomplished something. Because our lives really don’t connect around commonality except he was almost weeping. He said, “When I hear you reading my grandmother poems, it makes me think about my own grandmother and they make me happy and sometimes they make me sad. So just keep doing what you’re doing little lady.”
That matters to me. But it also matters to me that I know that my wings are being held up by my ancestors. They’re being held up by many, many people of color who are just carrying this legacy of pride with me. Because they know what it takes to be here. They know what it takes to get here, so I want to honor all of us. And I want to honor my mom. She’s 100-years-old and never would she have thought she would have seen this. For her it’s like Obama getting elected. That’s how my family feels. They’re like this is the inauguration of Obama all over again, and maybe I’m taking this too far, but it really is an honor and I’m humbled.
Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share about Shelby Stephenson, the outgoing Poet Laureate?
I’ve known Shelby forever, and I was very, very happy when he became Poet Laureate. I’ve penned blurbs on several of his books and that has been such an honor. My family loves him. My husband just thinks he’s one of the greatest souls that we know. When Shelby was writing about his family, he called me. We’ve had rich, deep conversations about a Southern past that we share. Shelby talks about July the slave girl whose grave that he found. I was one of the first people that he called. We had a long conversation about, “Should I write about this. Is it my story to tell?” I was like, “You have to write about it. How else would we know who July is? You have to give her breath.” So, there’s a lot of trust, and he’s a good soul. I’m happy to pick up where he’s leaving.